International borders: the severe, unyielding lines on the map

The plight of overseas students that seek work in the UK

Erin Tomkins holds a first in two Master’s degrees from NYU and King’s College, London. On completing her second Master’s from KCL last autumn, she began to look for a job in the UK.

She made 5 applications a day for two months and thereafter as many as she could. Of these, she got 11 interviews and 3 job offers. However, when her student visa ran out at the end of January 2018, there was nothing she could do but go back to America.

Erin is part of the 97% of international students who are unable to stay in the UK after their degrees. What was previously believed – using data from an International Passenger Survey (IPS) – to be tens of thousands that stayed back illegally, turned out to have no evidence according to a 2017 Office of National Statistics report.

How did we get here?

Every year, thousands of international students finish their degrees – whether Undergraduate or Postgraduate – and are forced to leave the UK because their student visas run out. The average time to look for jobs after graduation is three months, according to a Universities UK report. In this time, they not only have to make applications and appear for interviews, but also make sure their desired employers are certified to sponsor their new work visa, known as the Tier 2 (skilled worker) visa. ‘New entrants’ must receive a minimum salary of £20,800 and meet a minimum skill level for their potential jobs. Essentially meaning that they enter the job market draw with British and EU nationals, who are easier and more cost-effective to keep in the country.

This is the poor cousin of the Tier 1 Post-Study Work route, that was discontinued in 2012. The PSW allowed students a two-year period after their degrees to take up jobs they were qualified to do. The visa was acquired based on a points system, and not on the whim of employers (as is the case with the Tier 2). This was meant for “highly-skilled migrants” in the UK, usually characterized by university-educated, non-natives in a professional occupation. It’s a group of people often overlooked in the debate on immigration, which usually revolves around migrants from eastern Europe or the dire straits of asylum seekers.

The discontinuation of the Tier 1 PSW came as a strong blow to international student prospects, following a step in the direction of David Cameron’s manifesto in 2010 where he promised to curb net migration numbers, at 100,000. According to the ONS, the last time net migration was a 100,000 was in 1997. He told Britons to “vote us out in five years’ time” if this was not met. 5 years on, the number was more than three times the target – at 336,000. And today, Theresa May continues to fulfil this pursuit, unsuccessfully. The latest ONS report puts net migration as of November 2017 at 244,000.

The impacts of this are seen on a larger scale, in that the UK is not even the top European Union destination for international students, let alone in the world. It stands at number two for the second year consecutively, after Germany. And this is not surprising. The post-study work options in other international student hubs around the world are far more lucrative. In an analysis by Universities UK, it was found that USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia all allow variations of post-study work routes that enable an influx of economic and cultural capital that international students are the largest contributors of.

The USA allows students to apply for Optional Practical Training, a visa of 12 months which they may acquire near the end of their degrees. For STEM graduates – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – it’s available for 36 months. In Canada, students are allowed to remain in the country for the same duration as the length of their study, not conditional to a specific job offer. New Zealand has a 12-month ‘job search’ period on completion of studies, and Australia has a Post Study Work Stream visa – permitting graduates to remain for 2 to 4 years depending on their level of qualification.

Even Australia, a country notorious for stringent immigration laws, recognizes the importance of international students. In 2016, the Australian government released a 10-year roadmap incorporating world learners. This is a student-centric move to better the international education sector by way of improved teaching and placing premium on employability. With a steadily rising rate, they aim to achieve 720,000 foreign student enrolments in Australian institutions and schools by 2025.

And things would be a lot smoother if the British government saw things differently. Professor Thom Brooks, immigration law and policy specialist and Dean of Durham Law School (Durham University) argues that the government’s number one priority with immigration is that it wants less of it.

“Everything is steered around cutting the numbers. They want a sustainable number of migrants to the UK. But what number is sustainable? There’s no evidence base for 100,000. It’s just a round number that’s been plucked out of the air. It’s got a bunch of zeros in it and it sounds smaller.”

Net migration is not only a reductive, but also includes skewed figures. “It includes anyone that has left the UK for more than a year. So if you leave the UK for a year and a day, and came back, you would count in the long term migration data that it’s collecting.” And here, he believes, is the big deal – net migration counts British citizens.


Top 3 non-EU nationalities for study visas, Home Office, March 2017

As if skewed figures and draconian policies weren’t enough, education agents and ‘bogus’ colleges have further given international students a bad reputation. In her capacity as Home Secretary, Theresa May launched a crackdown which banned more than 900 ‘bogus’ colleges from bringing in foreign students, according to the Home Office. But it was increasingly found that ministers exaggerated the number of those who overstay their visa in order to justify the curbs on overseas students. Where there were claims of 100,000 overstayers, real figures point to only about 1,500. Further, while the reasons for trying to reduce those economic migrants masquerading as students are sound, the decision to hack thousands of genuine students is not.

“But what number is sustainable? There’s no evidence base for 100,000. It’s just a round number that’s been plucked out of the air. It’s got a bunch of zeros in it and it sounds smaller."

Since 2012, Universities UK has been fighting the inclusion of international students in net migration figures. Other countries recognise the temporary nature of international students. In the USA, international students are not included in the permanent immigration statistics produced by the Department of Homeland Security. Similarly, in Canada and Australia they are categorised as temporary or nonpermanent residents.

“It seems crazy, almost, to insist that they leave as soon as they’ve paid their last dime,” says Professor Brooks. These are the individuals that contribute to the global classroom and “globally competitive workforce – those that benefit the local community and keep the lights on.” He says it’s striking that there are no real opportunities and benefits afterwards. A higher education in the UK provides students with a lot, but it’s not much they can do with.

And this is why he believes that it makes places like Australia, Canada and the USA even more attractive. Because they are open to the best and the brightest, and have been over the last few years.

Hacked by the clock

Erin hasn’t started packing yet, but one of the first things she tells me is a list of the furniture that her partner, Cormac, and her, are planning to sell.

She talks about all the friends they must see before leaving to go back to America, because her Tier 4 student visa expires on January 30, 2018. After having graduated with a first from King’s College, London, in MA Film Studies, and finding no success with jobs in the UK – this is her only option.

“I have a part-time job that I did before. I worked with this professor and it was all remote basically – all over email. I got in touch with him and he said that I could start working with him as soon as I got back. So hopefully, I’ll be able to just do that for a little while.”

Her first choice was to stay in the UK and work at a production company or other work related with the film industry. She also holds two degrees in music – MM in Scoring for Film and Multimedia from New York University and BM in Piano Performance and Music Composition from the University of Kansas, using which she made applications for music publishing, music administration and managing artists.

But overall, of the three offers she received, none were able to actually sponsor the visa so she couldn’t accept any of them.

Erin says that she had a lot of friends on her course that were international students. “One-by-one, we all either gave up the search or chose not to stay because of the difficulties. I had a friend from China who went home almost immediately,” she says.

Cormac and her even looked into getting married as a last resort. “People kept suggesting it but regardless of it being a decision based on our relationship, the marriage visa involves a lot of paperwork,” he says.

“Before, both the individuals in the marriage would be able to contribute to a certain house income, for the visa to be valid. In recent years, that has now turned to just the person who is the British national – so in this case, myself,” he tells me, smiling through obvious difficulty.

Since July 2012, the minimum income requirement has come into force. It was upheld by courts in February 2017 and continues to apply. According to a Home Office Immigration Directorate published in August 2017, the Briton, in this case Cormac, would have to earn £18,600 a year before he and Erin can settle in the UK.

“And Erin wouldn’t be able to contribute to that and so that would affect my personal career goals.”


Cormac and Erin at their home in London

Cormac plans to leave London in July to go live with Erin in New York.


Rowan Mitchell

Rowan Mitchell is a third-year BA Social Anthropology student at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is an American citizen, from Florida, and is studying in England on the Tier 4 student visa. Like many students who study undergraduate degrees here, he hopes to stay on at Goldsmiths to study an MA in Anthropology and Museum studies.

But if he doesn’t get admission and therefore a renewal of his visa, he will have to go back to the USA in October 2018 – when his current Tier 4 runs out. According to the Home Office exit checks in March 2017, 26% of international students were given permission to stay for more study or work.

“My goal at the moment, is to go to the University of Amsterdam for their 4 year course in Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage. The specialisation which I want to do, which is ‘textiles’, is available in Autumn 2019. That’s why I’m doing this Master’s, so it acts as a bridge between my Social Anthropology undergraduate and this eventual professional PhD,” he says.

The UK Council for International Student Affairs recorded 17,115 American students coming to the UK in the academic year 2015-2016.

Rowan’s biggest concern, however, is the difficulty he will encounter in Florida as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. “The big thing in the States about being transgender, is health care.”

He says Donald Trump has given voice to a lot of radical right wing people, which is making things dangerous. In late 2017, the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions signed a memorandum titled ‘Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty’. According to the Washington Post, this articulates “20 sweeping principles” about religious freedom and what that means for the U.S. government. Although not all principles are objectionable, they could have a broad negative impact on the LGBTQ community and others.

“It’s being said that Trump has declared open season on faggots,” Rowan says, with visible discomfort about the situation in Florida. The first signs of trouble were seen in 2014, when a bakery refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding.

“There was an endocrinologist I used to see in Branden, Florida. You couldn’t tell the nurse you were transgender because she’d hang up on you,” says Rowan.

A Sliver of Success

Of the thousands of students whose visas expired in the year 2016/17, 26% of the students were granted visas for further study or work, an ONS report collated. Anwar Abdulhaqq, a Management Consultant at Accenture, London, was one that made it through.

After studying a year-long Foundation course at UCL, and thereafter, a BA in Middle Eastern Studies and Economics at SOAS, Anwar accepted a job offer from Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PWC). PWC is a multinational professional services network headquartered in London. They went on to sponsor him for the Tier 2 (skilled worker) visa.

His aim was always to make it to a big consulting company and hence helped establish the Consulting Society at SOAS.

Anwar is a 29-year-old from Singapore and also held a Tier 4 visa during his studies. “For me, the process of changing from Tier 4 to Tier 2 was seamless,” he says simply. He explains that the UK Visas and Immigration has a certified list of sponsors, on which most of the big companies are trusted. According to the Home Office Register of Sponsors, these are identified with an A rating.

“If you apply for a Tier 2 from within the UK and before your Tier 4 visa expires, you don’t have to go through the Resident Labour Market Test, says Anwar.” A RLMT is to be taken by the employer to justify employment of a skilled worker from outside the European Economic Area (EEA). According, to Davidson Morris, leading legal service providers, the RLMT is exempt if the employee is granted permission to stay in the UK as a Tier 4 migrant or as a student.

During his application process, visa status was never a point of discussion. He says that most of the big companies had competent Human Resources departments that would know which applicants needed sponsorship. And from his experience, most of them didn’t have problems sponsoring applicants. There were some companies that were known not to sponsor for certain jobs, but these were only a handful, according to Anwar.

“There wouldn’t have to be any negotiation or huge process to make the company sponsor you. From the onset, I would know that this company would sponsor me. There’s no back and forth,” he says, confidently. Anwar is certain that industry matters a lot when it comes to sponsorship for the Tier 2.

“Definitely industries like mine: professional services or consulting, investment banking even, these are the fields in which it’s easier to get sponsorship from the bigger companies. I know it’s very very difficult in the creative industries,” he says, citing examples of friends who were creative aspirants.

“I find it alarming that the government which claims to have a very strong view of wanting to create a market in degrees or a market in universities is so active in trying to engineer what this market is,” says Professor Brooks.


Mohamad Shaifulbahri, Creative Producer, Bhumi Collective

Mohamad Shaifulbahri is a Theatre producer from Singapore. He pursued a Master’s in Creative Producing at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in the academic year 2015/16. Following the end of his course, Shai, as he prefers to be called, applied for a Tier 1 graduate entrepreneurship visa. He was granted a year-long visa in January 2017, to set-up a multi-disciplinary arts company called Bhumi Collective.

Since he applied for a Graduate Entrepreneur visa he had to submit a business plan to his university. The UK Visas and Immigration has a list of authorised institutions or endorsing bodies which may approve a limited number of applications. These applicants then become eligible to apply to the UKVI. In this visa,

The collective came about when Shai and his business partner, Soultari Amin Farid, found a gap in the arts industry in the UK. “We describe the work we do as intercultural, multi-disciplinary and transnational. We were telling stories of the lesser seen, lesser known and lesser talked about,” he says. Their aim was to tackle issues of diversity and representation in arts in the UK.

According to the Arts Council of England Diversity Report (2016/17): in the working age population of England, 16% of people are from a Black or other minority ethnic (BME) background.

“I think, as an individual, I like to take up challenges,” Shai tells me, with regards to the Tier 1. He tells me that going back to Singapore would have been the easy option, because he’d already made theatre for 10 years prior to his MA. However, he soon realised that the arts industry in the UK was different from that in Singapore. “The bulk of the venues in the UK actually programme work, unlike the company-driven industry in Singapore.” He explained that venues in London, for example, programme about 6-12 months in advance and refused to programme works of companies they hadn’t seen before. “Which leaves you with bit of a chicken and egg situation, because how can I show them something if I don’t have the platform,” he says.

As a result, the year he spent in London was essentially “just going out and building relationships with venues and showing them what we’ve got going on.” Shai says it was very challenging to earn income from just doing that. He says one year was definitely not enough, even though it helped them build contacts. “One of the major reasons for our decision to go back to Singapore after a year on the Tier 1 was that it was a financial strain. Despite projects on the horizon, it was going to be an uphill climb,” he says.

After weighing their options, they decided they had more access to funding and opportunities in Singapore, and now work from there. Shai says coming back to the UK is not completely off the table.

Where do we go from here?

The only question that remains, therefore, is: where do we go from here? Left to Prime Minister Theresa May, the net migration target will stay at 100,000. “It will be clear that we do believe that net migration should be at sustainable levels, and sustainable levels does mean the tens of thousands,” she said at a campaign event in Harrow in May 2017. The target has been criticized time and time again by May’s political opponents, a Financial Times article said. Amber Rudd, Home Secretary, has been pushing a cabinet move to exclude international students from the target since November 2017.

Professor Brooks says that a lot of universities have also pledged their support to the cause of international students. “Like at my own university, we have a lot of international people – students and staff. We do global recruitment searches, I, myself am from overseas and so are a lot of my colleagues,” he says. As for the current situation on migration targets, he believes that it’s not good for the people, education in general and the British economy. The NHS, he explains, relies heavily on migrants, without which, there would be chaos.

The UK now has several migrant and international support groups. Every year, 1 Day Without US (1DWU), a volunteer-based group, organizes a day of action to support migrants in England. This is usually held in February. This year, on February 17, 2018, migrant groups in support of the NHS, diversity and equality marched in Parliament Square, Westminster. The slogans for the day read: “Proud to be a migrant” and “Proud to stand with migrants”.

Robert Liow is the Higher Education Coordinator for 1DWU, and is part of an increasing number of international students taking up activism. He is a third-year student of Law at King’s College, London, and has recently been elected as KCL Student’s Union Vice-President for Welfare and Community. Robert is an international student and plans to help build networks with various universities.

“My involvement, I think, has been helpful to build connections to support the campaign.

“1DWU invites people to live in a world where migration is not negative. The mission of it is to change the narrative around migration,” he says.

#WeAreInternational is another such group which is fighting for international students. Started by the University of Sheffield and its Student Union, they are now supported by over 160 universities and organisations across the UK. Sir Keith Burnett, President and Vice-Chancellor at the University is one of the co-founders of the group. The aim of #WeAreInternational is to celebrate and highlight the importance of diverse international student and staff communities.

“Having a hostile environment makes it difficult for people to make a life here. And then attracting people to do a degree, it’s very much a customer-like instrumental model. It’s like saying we want you to pay here, but we don’t want a longer contribution from you – it sends a conflicting message out.”


Data from 'International facts and figures', Universities UK, May 2017

There is still hope in the form of All-Party Parliamentary groups, like the one for international students started by Lord Bilimoria and MP Paul Blomfield. With more and more politicians opposing the current stringent targets, the UK’s education sector might be looking at some gradual shifts in a positive direction.

In December 2017, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that he would be supporting post-study work visa routes for students in the near future. According to the Evening Standard, the Mayor announced a three-pronged strategy to boost the capital’s workforce.

There are many individuals, including Professor Brooks, who believe that change will be difficult to come by under the current government. However, increasing international student groups, migrant awareness and political support prove as worthy tools to muster up change in the coming years.

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